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White powder, rule changes and Panthers get job done: Lessons learnt from 2021

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Expert
6th October, 2021
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When season 2021 kicked off way back on March 11, we all had hopes that we had emerged from under the cloud of COVID-19 lockdowns.

We looked forward to full stadiums and regular home games. We looked forward to home ground advantages. We even looked forward to shelling out outrageous sums of money for a cold pie in one hand and a warm beer in the other.

We just wanted the footy back.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. At least not after Round 17 when COVID-19 had the game on the run to Queensland to keep it going.

During the dark and seemingly unending days of lock down in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, the fact that we could still look forward to the football was a great mercy.

Now that the dust has settled on the year, it is time to examine what lessons we have learnt.

Money talks – but the NSW Cup can’t be cancelled again
While I – and a great many others – are incredibly grateful for the efforts of the NRL, the clubs and the Queensland government for doing such a great job to keep the season going, once more the NSW Cup was called off.

Make no mistake, the effects of this vital feeder competition being canned two seasons in a row will be felt. Up-and-coming players have effectively lost two years of development and opportunity. In some cases, players have been lost to the game through the economic necessity of needing to get a job.

The shutdown of this feeder competition will have the knock-on effect of lessened quality downstream. While this will only be a minor erosion that will recover in time, it does highlight that what was ‘saved’ was the bit that made money.

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Of course that was the bit that was saved. I would have done the same thing in their shoes. However, the game can’t afford to have another lost season for the second-tier of the game or it will have quite severe impacts on the quality of the top-tier product and cause significant damage to this pivotal feeder channel.

Faster isn’t always better
The catch cry of season 2021 was undoubtedly ‘V’landys Ball’. The rule changes sponsored by the ARLC Chairman were aimed at speeding the game up and making it more entertaining. Instead of penalties being blown for every infringement the referees were now going to award set restarts. This would keep the game faster and introduce fatigue.

And boy, didn’t it do that.

The problem was that once a side got on top it often was impossible for the other to get back into the game. Sure, we saw more scoring but that mostly came in the form of one side flogging another. In fact, it was pretty much the top six sides flogging the other ten sides.

There was a massive divide opened between the contenders and the rest. By eight rounds into the season, we were already able to definitively draw a line through ten of the clubs. By Round 12, there were really only four teams in contention if we were being honest.

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(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

The six-again frenzy distinctly calmed down following the State of Origin period. The ruck slowed down considerably and the incidence of blow outs was greatly lessened. While the set restart is unlikely to disappear as suddenly as the Sin Bin crack down of 2018 or the send-off frenzy of mid-2021, expect it to feature a whole lot less.

And if Andrew Abdo, Graham Annesley and V’landys are paying good attention, expect penalties to be awarded on the first and second tackles of a set next season. The clear cynical advantage that teams took of that rule to buy their defensive lines time to get set was beyond a joke by the time the finals rolled around.

And it sure as hell didn’t speed the game up…

Structure is one thing, but talent is essential and the Panthers have talent
Hands up how many of us wrote off the Storm this season after they lost two of their first three games? There were quite a few of us.

They then won 19 games straight. They lost just four games all season and scored the second most points of a team in a regular season ever.

However, the fourth game was the preliminary final.

Craig Bellamy is undoubtedly the very best strategist in the NRL. His team is ready for any eventuality and adheres to a structure better than any other I’ve seen. However, when it came right down to it, that wasn’t quite enough. Sure, the 14 errors in the preliminary final was a large part of them bowing out. But for mine the Panthers were the Premiers in 2021 because they were the most talented side, pound for pound.

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They learned a hard lesson in the 2020 Grand Final and, while a number of their last couple of wins were pretty ugly this season, they didn’t get done twice. All power to them. They deserve their victory and Ivan Cleary deserves recognition as the top line coach he has been for years.

Gerry Sutton is considered the number one ref and there’s nothing that will change that
When images showed that Gerry Sutton allowed Nathan Cleary’s conversion attempt to be taken metres infield from where it should have been during the preliminary final, it was bandied around that it might cost the brother of Chris and Bernard his fifth straight NRL Grand Final.

While we’ve seen pretty much every referee on the current roster dropped for such infractions, Gerry Sutton was never going to get dropped. He has now controlled the last eight State of Origin series and seven of the last eight grand finals. I’m not sure what he’d have to do to get dropped.

Meanwhile, the man regarded by a great many as the best in the game – Matt Cecchin – has just been allowed to hang up his whistle. You can’t blame the bloke, though. Since controlling the 2017 State of Origin series and the Grand Final the same year, the powers that be – which included Bernard Sutton until this season – only chose to put him in two minor finals games.

Moses Mbye is sin-binned by Matt Cecchin

Moses Mbye is sin-binned by Matt Cecchin (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

The reality is that Gerry Sutton is an excellent referee and worthy of the gigs he gets. However, I would love to see Adam Gee, Grant Atkins and rising star Peter Gough start getting some big games sooner rather than later.

Players are dumb
This is a lesson we have learned repeatedly. And we’ll continue to learn it. Players will get drunk and get in fights. They will get amorous with others in public toilets. They’ll break quarantine. They’ll post moronic and offensive things on social media platforms. They’ll get busted doing party drugs.

Unfortunately, there is little we can do about all of these things apart from locking them up when they are not at training or playing the games. However, I’ve checked this option out and it appears that it is against the law. So expect more stupidity to come.

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Trainers will continue to frolic unabated across NRL field everywhere
While lots was made of cynical trainer interference in a few finals games this season – and the Rabbitohs even highlighted the illegal access to the field that NRL Operations is allowing them to have – do not expect to see the trainers access to the field limited in any way.

They will continue to do as they please. They will continue to pose a totally unnecessary risk and they’ll probably be the cause of a number of totally avoidable incidents.

And the NRL won’t do anything to stop it happening.

When a trainer next causes an incident, Graham Annesley and his pals will act genuinely surprised by it and view it as an isolated incident – and then proceed to do nothing at all about it. Again.

Why? Who knows. However, it has been suggested to me that they are imbecilic and incompetent.

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What is going to happen next year?
Statistically, there are a few things we know are likely to happen next season:

1. Neither the Panthers or Rabbitohs are likely to win the Grand Final in 2022, let alone make it – but the Rabbitohs are the far more likely of the two

2. The 2022 Premier is almost a 90 per cent chance to either be one of this year’s finalists or at a minimum a side that played in at least a preliminary final in the past four seasons

3. Two to three of this year’s finalists will not play finals in 2022, with one of those dropping out likely to be a top-four finisher from 2021

4. The wooden spoon is a 75 per cent likelihood to go to one of this season’s bottom-four finishers.

5. At least two coaches will get sacked. We have only had one coach sacked in season 2021. That is the equal lowest in the history of the NRL. On each of the other five times only one coach has been sacked in a season, the following year at least two havegotthe boot from their gigs.

Brad Arthur, Anthony Griffin, Nathan Brown, Michael Maguire, Kevin Walters, Todd Payten and Trent Barrett will all be painfully aware of that fact – especially the four of them who’ve been sacked before who statistically are at highest risk.

As well as those who are at clubs that have strong records of sacking coaches, noting that the Warriors have sacked seven, the Wests Tigers and the Dragons five and the Cowboys four respectively in the 23 year history of the NRL.

6. Gerry Sutton will control all three State of Origin games and the 2022 NRL GF.

We’ll check back this time next year to check out how these calls went.

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